Thursday, March 06, 2008

When language revitalisation reopens old wounds

Not everyone welcomes language revitalisation efforts. Apart from anything else, it often implies that a major decision taken by you or your parents - to speak to the children in a different language - was wrong, and, by increasing your exposure to the endangered language in question, puts you in a position where you can't help but notice that this decision's implications are nearly irreversible. (I have speculated that this might be one reason for the less than enthusiastic reaction of some of the first speakers to have brought up their kids as Arabic monolinguals to my arrival in Tabelbala.) The writer Ken MacLeod's recent attempt to come to grips with what annoys him about the proliferation of Gaelic-English bilingual roadsigns in Scotland nicely expresses this: guess is this: we regret not speaking Gaelic, and we resent the presumption that we should. We have done their best with the hard hand we were dealt. Some of us have left for the Central Belt or the ends of the earth. Others have made a living in the desolate, depopulated landscape, working on the shooting estates or digging the thin and sodden fields in the old days; in tourism, commerce and industry today. And in almost all cases, to do this meant forgetting the language, leaving it to dwindle in the Sunday-morning sermon and the ceilidh and the old folks' private talk. We had to learn English, and we were proud that we spoke a more standard English than the Lowland Scots.

And after all that has left us illiterate and inarticulate in the language of our ancestors, but sharp and cutting in the lingua franca of the modern world, you come back and mock the teuchter again, with your signs for Raon Gnìomhachais (Industrial Estate) and Pàirc Gnothachais (Business Park) and Snaidhm-Rathaid (Interchange) and Port-adhair (Airport) - bright green sticking-plasters across what we had thought were faded scars.